State of Wonder

Terese Marie Mailhot On Memoir, Memory And Agency

By April Baer (OPB)
Feb. 10, 2018 7:46 p.m.
Terese Marie Mailhot, who grew up in British Columbia. Her memoir, "Heart Berries," published Feb. 6 by Counterpoint Press.

Terese Marie Mailhot, who grew up in British Columbia. Her memoir, "Heart Berries," published Feb. 6 by Counterpoint Press.

Courtesy of Counterpoint Press

Terese Marie Mailhot's memoir, "Heart Berries," is breaking big, winning endorsements from The New York Times and from Sherman Alexie, who met Mailhot at a writing workshop he was teaching. Alexie called her a "generational talent … a powerful indigenous woman who interrogates herself" in her writing. Mailhot, who's the Saturday editor for The Rumpus, grew up on the Seabird Island Indian Reserve in British Columbia. "Heart Berries" addresses harrowing stories, like the day Mailhot lost custody of her oldest child, her hospitalization for PTSD and bipolar disorder, the desperate poverty of her girlhood days. But the story's fulcrum is Mailhot's will to reclaim her own story. For all the exquisite, koan-like stories of abuse and privation, she is as ruthless with herself as with ex-lovers and family.

Mailhot, who now lives in Indiana, will read at Powell’s Books this Sunday, Feb. 11, in conversation with writer Lidia Yuknavitch. We caught up with her for a few minutes to talk about the book and returning to the Pacific Northwest.

Q&A with Terese Marie Mailhot

April Baer: How often do you get back?

Terese Marie Mailhot: Normally I travel for funerals. And that's where I see my family. For the first time, I'm coming back here and inviting my brothers, and we were just in Seattle. It's really a celebration. I've missed the rain, I've missed the mountains.

Baer: Is your relationship with home changing?


Mailhot: I think so. Because now I feel more autonomous. When I left, it was under brutal circumstances. Now I'm coming back as a postdoctoral fellow. I can take my family out to dinner and enjoy the scenery. When I left, it was like, "How do I get out?" And now I have the luxury of being in the present moment. It's so beautiful here.

Baer: Was the storytelling of the book part of what brought you to that place?.

Mailhot: Yeah. When I wrote the book, I had no idea how transformative it was going to be for me.

Baer: The book opens with a bracingly frank discussion of telling one’s own story — the cost of it. There’s an incredible line where you say, even though it didn’t start that way, the story became the hustle. What an incredible way to begin a memoir.

Mailhot: When you are in a case file, and you're a Native woman and trying to get social assistance, you realize that when you start telling your story they mark it as solicitation, and they pity you, and they see you as this stereotype. I spent years in that place, understanding people were not going to see me removed from my circumstances unless I removed myself. It transformed the narrative.

Baer: I feel like this memoir breaks every single rule for what you’re not supposed to talk about: hospitalization for mental illness, scandalous affairs with older academics, the issues of losing custody of a child.

Mailhot: I learned from a lot of other writers. It is a taboo, you're inside somebody else's life in a way that's voyeuristic. I enjoy giving myself to the page. That's why I write. I wanted to do something generous and self-effacing and pure. The only way to do that, maybe, is dish and say things I didn't expect to.

Editor's note: Since our interview with Terese Mailhot, some women have published online accusations of sexual harassment against Sherman Alexie, who wrote the introduction to Mailhot's book. 

Mailhot sent us this statement:

"I can speak to the fact that I always believe women, and that I believe it is important to believe women. Beyond that, I would prefer not to field questions about Sherman Alexie, and to keep questions focused on my own story, art, life, and 'Heart Berries.'"